Purdue students preparing today for a future driven by data

WEST LAFAYETTE – Data is everywhere. It’s how your GPS knows how to guide you to your favorite coffee shop, or how cancer researchers can use data to determine the best individual drug therapy options for patients. Ultimately, data science is helping companies connect the dots between today’s decisions and tomorrow’s strategies.

Purdue University is answering the call for data science expertise with The Data Mine – a fully immersive living and learning community for students, faculty, researchers and corporate partners alike. More than 600 students collaborate and learn from each other in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap in data-infused innovation.

The program promotes learning from data, using it as a tool to help solve real-world problems in a data-driven society. Watch this video to learn more.

Mark Daniel Ward, director of The Data Mine, is enthusiastic about the program, which immerses students in data science rather than sitting through old-school classroom lectures. The result is a re-envisioned residential learning environment that welcomes students from all majors.

Mark Daniel Ward, director of Purdue’s Data Mine program, steps up to the white board with two students working through a project. The Data Mine learning community offers students the chance to focus on advancing data science through collaboration, research and innovation. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

“It’s really the idea of having data science for all,” Ward says. “It’s a way for students to learn about the data sciences while they are learning about their discipline.”

The amount of knowledge people are producing now from their data footprint is on a scale considered unimaginable a few years ago, making data utilization critical for the coming decade. It’s estimated that the number of devices producing raw data will leap from today’s roughly 20 billion to almost a trillion by 2030.

“We’re using data to make predictions, build models and gain new insight beyond our own understanding of an area,” Ward says. “It’s a tool to achieve that ‘ah ha!’ moment when you uncover new insight and learning.

“Our students take ownership and have that moment of discovery because of the tools they’ve learned here.”

More than 300 undergraduate and graduate students participate in The Data Mine’s Corporate Partners program, which enables them to work directly with employees of companies and national laboratories on data-driven projects.

Maggie Betz, corporate partners senior manager for The Data Mine, said partners range from Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft to all sizes of Midwest industries including Cummins and Beck’s Hybrids. There are more than 25 partnerships with industry leaders.

“By giving our students a hands-on, project-based experience, we are creating the next generation of data-fluent graduates,” Betz says. “We take on the really large data projects our corporate partners would love to do if they had the time.”

Student projects have included partnering with Sandia National Laboratories to examine how flight patterns changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and collaborating with Ford Motor Co. to assess data for a language processing system.

With their data science knowledge, students also gain core aspects of intangible skills including communication, working on a team and problem-solving.

“In every area of the workforce, the need is imperative for our students to bring their expertise,” Ward says. “Because of the unique experience they have in The Data Mine, our students are ready to make a tremendous impact in the workforce as soon as they graduate from Purdue.”

Participating students work in groups, while also usually living in Hillenbrand Hall. Professors even have office hours in the residence hall, making it a truly immersive experience.

“The data sciences are naturally collaborative; a communal kind of experience where you’re so much stronger, and it’s so much more fun when you do it with other people,” Ward says.

But while the data work falls under realm of sciences, the topics they work with vary greatly. Purdue students work in groups of 20 learning communities on data-driven research projects revolving around a particular theme, ranging from manufacturing to food insecurity.

Purdue’s dedicated effort to delve into data science research was initiated by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation beginning in 2014. The program that emerged as The Data Mine was introduced in 2018-19 with around 100 students.

The Data Mine is part of Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative.

Now, Purdue is data-infused, with plans underway to expand student enrollment in The Data Mine in the near future and to prepare more students for future jobs that rely on data science skills.

“You really can find the data sciences in every field,” Betz says. “You can take your skills in data and put them to work almost anywhere.” 

Information: Brian Huchel, bhuchel@purdue.edu 

Sources: Mark Daniel Ward, mdw@purdue.edu; Maggie Betz, betz@purdue.edu